“Free radical” is a term you might have heard about, usually in the context of its link to rapid aging and cancer. But what exactly is a free radical?
Free radicals—also called reactive oxygen species—and their toxic effects have been on scientists’ minds since their discovery about a hundred years ago. As scientists have learned more about the role that reactive oxygen species play in aging and cancer, the free radical’s reputation as “a bad guy” was established.
Enzymes that are capable of producing free radicals are found in many different cells in the body, including the heart and blood vessels. Free radicals can also lead to the destruction of heart cells during a heart attack.
Researchers have been trying to find a way to minimize the bad effects of free radicals on our health. This is where NADPH oxidase—an enzyme that’s found in immune cells—comes into play. NADPH oxidase produces a weapon called a “mighty” superoxide to destroy harmful bacteria. If NADPH oxidase for some reason fails to release this “secret weapon,” our bodies will lose a tug-of-war with bacterial infection.
As scientists have learned more about free radicals, it has become clear that in addition to causing harm, our cells use free radicals as messengers for signaling and communicating with one another. This makes it difficult to figure out how to let them do their jobs without causing harm.
Clinical trials are now focused on blocking specific enzymes, such as NADPH oxidase, from producing free radicals to keep levels in check. One study found this strategy successful in treating oxidative stress (the damage caused by free radicals) in children with breathing problems.
Researchers are also exploring how NADPH oxidase inhibitors could be used to treat diseases ranging from liver inflammation to lung and blood vessel problems.
As we await the results of these trials, antioxidants can come to the rescue as a natural way to fight the harmful effects of free radicals. Antioxidants are vitamins that fight the cellular damage caused by reactive oxygen species. We can get them through the fruits and vegetables we eat or through a supplement at our local grocery store.
The next time you pile your plate with produce, think about how you’re stopping free radicals in their tracks!
Anthony Sylvester is a recent graduate of the University of Illinois Springfield, where he majored in biology. He is planning to study bioengineering in graduate school.
Natalya Zinkevich, PhD, is an assistant professor at the University of Illinois at Springfield. She teaches courses related to human anatomy and physiology, health and disease, and vertebrate zoology. Her research primarily focuses on the cardiovascular system.